A bow to Queen

One band we haven’t given full props to until now is Queen.

Driven by the vocal histrionics of Freddie Mercury and the guitar wizardry of Brian May, this band tore up the charts with an insanely eclectic brand of rock, releasing 22 Top Ten albums and 23 Top Ten singles. Their biggest hit, the operatic “Bohemian Rhapsody” (1975), has been voted by many as the greatest rock song ever and their appearance at Live Aid (1985) has been hailed as the greatest rock performance of all time.

Here's one of their later hits, written by Brian May.

But few have paid notice to the intelligence of this band, which belies the doltish I-just-want-to-rock-and-roll-all-night stereotype of rockers. Brian May earned his PhD in astrophysics in 2007, co-authored Bang! — The Complete History of the Universe (as well as earlier articles on zodiacal dust), and served as chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University for five years. Drummer Roger Taylor already had a Bachelor of Science degree when he joined Queen. Bassist John Deacon had a Master of Science degree in acoustics and vibration technology, and designed equipment for the band. Mercury—born Farrokh Bulsara in Zanzibar—was an Ealing Art College grad.

Maybe an overlooked business lesson from rock is to get REALLY SMART PEOPLE onto your team?

Lots of other lessons to learn from this gang: take innovative gambles, break the mold, be pioneers not copycats, and leave the competition in the zodiacal dust. Easier said than done, of course, but they did made it look easy. This is a musical act that has long defied simple classification given their genre-splitting creative reach. (Their music has been described as Prog, Pop, Metal, Glam, Psych, Opera, and even Dance!)

One November night in 1978 I met up with May and Taylor backstage at a Connecticut night club, Toad’s Place. It was obvious that these were bright fellows who knew where to find intellectual stimulation after their sold-out performance at the New Haven Coliseum. At the moment I was celebrating my triumphant campaign for Governor of Connecticut. (I didn’t technically win, but I made a strong enough showing to declare a personal triumph and hold my victory party at Toad’s.) May and Taylor enthusiastically joined in on the gaiety, apparently oblivious to the fact that I didn’t actually win the election. But I didn’t want to disappoint them, so I graciously accepted their toasts to my electoral accomplishment as a fellow musician and rookie politician.

So here’s another business lesson for ya: "Tude is everything! Fake it till you make it. Create the reality you want and others will buy into it." (This is related to my last post on creating enthusiasm from scratch.) Works for politics, art, and business. This was certainly the credo of Freddie Mercury and Queen.

I never met the mercurial Mercury, who died of complications from AIDS in 1991, but I always admired his songwriting creativity and his theatrical mastery. And of course his snarky wit, which was in evidence in his famous comeback line to Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols, who apparently resented the rock & roll refinery of Queen.

Vicious: “So you’re this Freddie Platinum bloke that’s supposed to be bringing ballet to the masses?

Mercury: “Ah, Mr. Ferocious! We’re doing our best, dear.”

Queen has resumed touring in the last decade fronted by lead singer Paul Rodgers and more recently Adam Lambert.

For an earlier post about my rock & roll campaign and my election night party with Queen, check here. The reader commentary is especially amusing.

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  1. Your point is so well made. I know of an early folk rock group known as the squirrels that performed out of Yale in the 60's that are still performing and faking it to this day..Just saw them fake a great show in New Haven.Nobody knew they were faking but them.

    Hope to see them again.

  2. I didn't appreciate them til I was much older. Take risk, be original, and of course back it up with immense talent. If they were faking it, they sure fooled me.

    1. The "faking it" part mostly applied to me and my political adventures at the time. From what I know about Queen, they started off as a very competent unit. But most rock bands go through a stage of faking it before their talent catches up with their aspiration. They DECLARE who they are and operate from that, with or without external validation. U2 is a great example of that. http://businesslessonsfromrock.com/notes/2011/03/ambition-first-talent-later-the-u2-approach

      Typing this on my Mac, I'm reminded what a bullshitter Steve Jobs was, with his delusions of grandeur and his silly exhortation to his team in 1984 to "make a dent in the universe." A classic faker.

  3. The whole idea of " 'tude is everything" really harks back to the previous post about engagement. (Is there some kind of internal logic working here?!) If you show engagement, you're likely to get it back. Show disengagement, you're pretty much guaranteed to get that back.

    Of course, the problem really starts at the point where - per John's last comment - talent fails to catch up with aspiration.

    BTW, I saw a terrific Queen tribute band a couple of weeks ago. It reminded me of how talented Queen were (2 hours of greatest hits in a packed 2,000 seater with everyone up and rocking) and how hard Freddy worked. His impersonator was very, very good and boy did he have to work to pull it off. Queen are still much loved in the UK part of the world, with or without Scotland attached.

  4. 'Tude is everything, but faking it doesn't fly with me. I've always thought of Queen as far less than genuine, ever since seeing their performance in my hometown in the 70s. They played some good rock & roll but nothing like their records which were more sophisticated. In concert, they relied on a lot of old-style audio trickery, like repeating tape echo and cheap-sounding digital chorusing. And the pretencious "glam" part (makeup, etc.) was just a turn-off.

    To contrast with that, Van Halen had the talent to start with and never faked the attitude, even in thier small club days. Their live performances were (are) musically always identical to their recordings, with perhaps a keyboard track for filler, but nothing more. You could be secure in the knowlege that what you heard on the record will be every bit the same in concert. They revolutionized the way that rock concerts were presented, making them athletic events, and forced every other act (including Queen) to make it a spectacle.

    Every Van Halen concert I've seen is better musically and more exciting than Queen's Live Aid performance, and no makeup required.

    1. Ed, you CAN’T be serious! Van Halen was a great live band, and Eddie commands the universe as a guitarist. But Queen were major rock innovators with SO many dimensions to their music and FAR superior compositions. One could argue that Queen’s songwriting towers above that of all its hard rock rivals (including Zeppelin). A century from now Queen’s records will still be played.

      Admittedly Mercury’s performance shtick is an acquired taste. But he approached performance as an actor. There’s nothing intrinsically inauthentic about make-up and theatrics, unless Jagger, Bowie, BJ Armstrong, et al. are phonies.

      And what’s the big deal about a band reproducing its records? Should Queen have not recorded “Bohemian Rhapsody”? I never expected the Beatles to reproduce the best of Rubber Soul or Revolver.

  5. I got sucked in by "Bohemian Rhapsody" and stayed for brilliance like "39" and "I'm in Love with My Car."

    Smart rock. That's the genre tag for them.

    Fun story about Brian May, who I'd love to buy a pint when he's free: his guitar was made by his dad from a piece of their fireplace. The very day he had enough, he bought a real guitar, but kept the old junker for nostalgia's sake.

    Years later some guitar company made an exact replica of it and sold it for a preposterous sum. Brian was appalled these poor kids were being snookered into buying an expensive replica of a piece of junk.

    (Similar stories about Macca's Hofner: he struggled along with it until he could afford a Rickenbacker. Hofner makes something of quality now, but my gearhead friends aver that the one he recorded with back when was cheap on all fronts.)

  6. The best rock artists, with few exceptions, have been the brightest. Not necessarily the best educated but the most intelligent -- and most creative.

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